Artist Date 62: Standing On…? Wondering Where I Am.

"Love is Pain." Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.
“Love is Pain.” Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.

Love is pain.

That is what the quilt says.  Right in the center on a big red heart.  All around it are stages, stops – like on a game board.  Candy Land or Risk.  Yeah, Risk.

Love.  Joy.  Desire.

Trust.  Faith.  Intimacy.

Jealousy.  Anger.  Betrayal.

Heartbreak.  Wound.

Anxiety.  Disillusion.  Despair.

Loss.  Grief.

It is Valentine’s Day.  I am at the Greenleaf Art Center for the exhibit – Be Mine.  I am meeting my girlfriends here, but they are stuck in traffic.  So I am alone.  Impromptu Artist Date 62.  My second this week.

I step back and look at the quilt that greets me as I walk in the door, wondering where I am on it.

Joy.  Desire.

I met a man.  Or perhaps I should say, re-met.  We knew each other once upon a time.  Kind of.   We are getting to know one another – not quite again – but now, for the very first time.

He is smart and funny, creative, sensitive and sexy.  I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me.  We can talk for hours about anything and everything.  We laugh a lot.  And I find myself smiling a lot.  Friends have noticed this.

There are about a thousand reasons why this will likely not work out and I will land on the square marked Heartbreak.  I occasionally visit Anxiety already.  I hate uncertainty.  But I can’t not see this through.  I want to find out about us.

Trust.  Faith.  I am trying to practice both in my life.  Not so much with him, but with the universe, my higher power.  Intimacy.  Yes.  We are building that — slowly.  He lives several states away, so we are forced to go at this pace.  Although the recent addition of Skype dates – we have one tonight – have added a heat to the flame.

I have not told him every single thing about me – emotionally vomiting, as if to say, “So can you handle that?”  And, obviously, I have not slept with him.  I haven’t led with my sexuality – my one-time calling card – either.  Refraining from saying things like, “I think about you bending me over the butcher block and hiking up my dress around my waist.”  I think them instead.

"Ungentlemanly Behavior."  Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.
“Ungentlemanly Behavior.” Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.

Loss.  Grief.  I still find myself here sometimes too.  Not as deeply entrenched as I once was.  I am no longer up to my knees in it.  I am standing in the sun, my feet wet, in a puddle left from the storm.

Post-divorce, grieving the loss of the fantasy, that that one person will be there no matter what.  Always.  That this love will quiet that part of me that silently screams “Don’t leave me.”  It is a lie.

Day one of my life on the planet.  Separated from my mother.  I do not recall a second of it.  Yet I know a part of my work here is to heal it.

I watch it get kicked up and manifest in unconscious, desperate attempts for control and certainty.  As if that will heal me.  But it doesn’t.  Neither did a husband.  Nor meeting my biological parents.  The work is mine alone.

I move on to a series of men’s shirt collars embroidered with real messages from the artist’s experiences with online dating.  “What kind of underwear girl are u?”  “Every young man want to get laid by a gray hair lady.” “You want a naughty pic?”  It reminds me I have not finished my Match.com profile.  And that I probably won’t.

There are maps covered with pins and handwritten notes.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with broken glass and newspaper clippings. A video of a woman covered in striped fabric dancing with a bee.

I return for a third time to a piece titled, “Love Letter.”  It is long and tall, like a body.  With hair at the top, words winding down the center, like buttons, and rocks circling the bottom.  The artist, Sherry Antonini writes, “Love Letter is a meditation on listening inward and noticing outward; on persistence and on beginning again with what is left over.”

I read the poem running down her torso again.  It is still too much to take in.  So I photograph it – in pieces.

“Keep time.  But throw away most other things, including reasons to worry…Watch for signs, however small.  Push through with ideas, envisioning them as even bigger than you think they deserve to be.  Do this until you can once again see yourself shine…

"Love Letter."  Artist, Sherry Antonini.
“Love Letter.” Artist, Sherry Antonini.

“Make a list of the things you hold at core.  Those essences nearly forgotten, cast aside for too long…Months or years it is that you have been bound tight and stilled, silenced in some darkness.  But the beauty of light is insistent…

“First, you fill up a room, then you empty it, one piece at a time and all in its right time.  No one can tell you not to.  Or that you can’t.  That you never will.  Or won’t ever again.

“When you rotate the stones point them in line with your heart’s desire, you put your hands once again on your own gleam of power and touch possibility.”

I head toward the front door as my friends are entering.  Unplanned.  Serendipity.  I meet them, filled, spilling over.  Love.  Joy.  And later, this man who makes me smile big, on Skype.  He notices my grin and tells me he likes it.  I read him the poem, still trying to sort my way through it.  Intimacy.  Faith.  Desire.

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Artist Date 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.

Real. With Most of Her Hair Loved Off

I’m sitting in a big upholstered chair at The Book Cellar, a stack of children’s books in my lap. Tears streaming down my cheeks – red from the warmth inside.

There is a discussion panel about the Arab Spring just a few feet away from me.  Every seat is filled – except for mine, tucked away at the end of the stacks.  A couple of people are standing.

friendsI’m supposed to be choosing a gift for my friend Clover’s yet-to-be-born baby.  Her friends are throwing her a shower this weekend.  And she and Andy have asked guests to bring a book for the baby’s library.  I’m pretty sure I’ve chosen hers – Friends, by Eric Carle’s.  The words are simple, the illustrations lush.  I think about our friendship.  That my wish for her child is to have a friendship like ours.

On the inside back cover is a photograph of Carle and his friend.  They are three-years old.  The month it is taken is written in German, by his mother.  Carle never saw his friend again.  “I often wonder what happened to him,” he writes.

Tears.

I think about people leaving and having no say in the matter.  Powerless.  My adoption shit is all stirred up.

I am reading The Velveteen Rabbit.  I sort of know the story – my friend Rachel used to reference it, talking about being real and having all the fur loved off of you.  But I don’t think I ever actually read it.  Or had it read to me.  Until now.

“ ‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day…’Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’ “

I smirk.

“ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. (Named for his bald brown coat and missing hairs of his tail.)   ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with…I let the words wash over me.

“ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.”

Yes, I whisper, to no one in particular.

Illustrations, William Nicholson
Illustrations, William Nicholson

“ ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ “

Bullshit.

“ ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ ”

All at once.  Wound up.  That is my history – mostly.  All in love.  Insanely inside one another’s skin.  Until now.   I’ve been getting to know some new someones, bit by bit.  It is new.

“ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once…You become.  It takes a long time.’ “

Amen.

“ ‘That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

So we don’t all become real?

Do I break easily?  Because I cry easily.  Because I hurt easily.  I decide that it is not the same thing.  Although pieces have certainly chipped off in transit.  I am soft, at times ridiculously so, free of sharp edges.  And despite my seemingly fragile nature, I do not have to be carefully kept.

“ ‘Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

“…but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.’ ”

Yes.  I think so.

Except for when I am not.  Not Real.  Twisting myself inside out to be who I think you want me to be so that you will love me.  It is more infrequent now.  Subtle.  But it still happens.  Awful.

The way I make myself small, without even knowing it, so you won’t feel overwhelmed by me.  My desires.  My needs.  My emotions.  I found myself doing it today.  Unconscious.   Until I wasn’t.

“How sick to be small and to sit by and wait until you can accept more of me,” I wrote in my notebook.

The Skin Horse tells his story.  Illustrations, William Nicholson.
Skin Horse tells his story. Illustrations, William Nicholson.

“The Rabbit sighed.  He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him.  He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad.  He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

Me too.  But so far, these “uncomfortable things” have been the wellspring of change in my life.

I remember once saying to my girlfriend Julie, having again gained back all of the weight I had lost and then some, that if someone could wave a wand and make me a healthy weight, I was certain this time I would maintain it.

I doubt it.

The Rabbit does become Real.  Not just to the child who plays with him, but to everyone.  Real with real hind legs – no longer made from just a single piece of fabric – the kind that allow him to jump without the boy tossing him in the air.

And one day, when Autumn became Winter became Spring, the Rabbit saw the boy again – playing in the woods.

“ ‘Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!’

But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.”

Come back to look at the child…yes, sometimes they come back.  High-school friends I never really knew.  Birth parents.  And old boyfriends – 18-plus years later – just to say they are sorry.

Sometimes.

I pick up both books and take them to the register.  I have one gift wrapped for Clover’s baby.  The other I keep for me – the one with most of her hair loved off.

Artist Date 56: Kind Of Like I Know You

2013-06-04 17.12.55
I coulda, shoulda
worn this hat this night.

It’s raining. Pissing raining. And dark. The snow from the storm which renamed this place Chi-beria is melting and I’m certain the city will flood.

And what look like parking spots in Rogers Park are a siren’s calling mix of ice, snow and deep water. My wheels are sliding under me. And then my feet, unsteady in the rain boots I never wear. The ones I bought a few years ago. That I thought could pass for winter boots as the shaft is made of grey flannel. I was mistaken.

I walk gingerly into the tiny theatre and choose my seat from the 25 or so, covered in red velvet. I lay my gloves, scarf and hat on the chair next to me to dry.

I smell like wet dog.

Eric Warner sent me an invitation to his performance –“A Life in Tending,” Artist Date 56 – on Facebook, just after his last performance, where he shared the stage with my friend Clover. Artist Date 45.  The same night I realized I have danced with his fiancé years.

So I kind of feel like I know him, even though I don’t really. But he greets me at the door like I do. Even though Clover isn’t here. And neither is his fiancé.

He takes me into The Purple Hotel on Lincoln Avenue with him and his friends – long after it has closed. When the ground is grown over with weeds and the swimming pool is filled with black algae. When they snuck in, several years ago. Or more to the point, when they committed a felony in the name of urban excavation. Of bearing witness.

Which takes him into his grandmother’s home.

And he takes me there too, introducing me to the fierce, loving, tough-as-nails matriarch whose only rule was “Do whatever you want but don’t burn the house down.” Who, when informed her grandson’s classmates call him “fat” and “stupid,” asks, “Do you think you are those things?” Adding that people will tell him he is all sorts of things, what matters is that he knows who he is.

It is no longer that place since his grandmother died several years ago – even though his grandfather remains. He has taken to sitting in her chair, instead of staring at the empty space, where she used to be, from his own.

Pimp or Orthodox Jew?
Pimp or
Orthodox Jew?

Her walker, commode and oxygen tank sit, as though waiting for her to return. Tsotchkes line the kitchen table, sold for a song to feed his Keno habit. And perhaps also as a way of emptying the house, so his family won’t have to when he dies.

I think of my birthmother’s home, a place I visited just three times. Once to meet her. Once to say goodbye. And once to bury her.

On the first visit, I noticed the oxygen tanks in the kitchen – she was just 56. When I returned a few years later, a walker, shower bench and commode had been added.

On the third visit, we got rid of all of it. Me, my “aunt, uncles and cousins,” all of whom I’d never met until now. Except for my aunt. And her, just once, on my second visit.

I tossed reams of paper into large, black garbage bags – notes on an unsolved murder mystery she was following, years old credit-card statements, meeting minutes from the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I remember standing back as my cousins fingered through her jewelry. My uncle telling me to “get in there.” I didn’t want anything, but I took a brooch anyway.

A few weeks later my aunt sent me my birth mom’s fur hat and coat –her name embroidered on the inside lining. It had belonged to their mother, my “grandmother.” I have never worn fur in my life. I cannot decide if I look like a pimp or an Orthodox Jew in it. It hangs in my coat closet still, even on the chilliest of Chicago days.

This morning, my birth mom’s son, my “half brother” friended me on Facebook. We have never met, or even spoken. A few months ago his daughter wrote to me. We exchanged a couple of emails where I filled in the blanks, explaining exactly who I was.

The timing is not lost on me.

I want to tell Eric all of this. To share my story, because he has shared his.  Because I feel like I know him.  To say “me too.” But I don’t. I do not see him on the way out and I am anxious to get home.

When I arrive I look at the calendar hanging in the kitchen – a gift from my “real” mom, the one who raised me. I’ve written just two things for January. The anniversary of my spiritual teacher’s passing, and my birth mom’s birthday. They are the same day, January 12 – this Sunday.

Arttist Date 51: Now I Know

There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood.  Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.

detroit 67My origins, my adoption and my first eight weeks on the planet – captured with typewriter ribbon on onion-skin paper and tucked into a red vinyl bag with my report cards and school pictures.

The loss of my mother’s biological child.  One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it.  The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.

The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.

It was the summer of 1967.  The city of Detroit was on fire — literally.  Residents rioted and looted.  Police unleashed with unrestrained force.  Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.

My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.

She did.  Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs.  It felt close.  Too close.  And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away.  So they went.

Photo by Phil Cherner
Photo by Phil Cherner

I don’t recall any more of the story than that.  How it ended.  When it ended.  When they came home.  Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.

Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots.  They hypothesized.  But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain.  Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.

I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.

The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it.  That I needed to see it.  I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood.  I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.

The audience is mostly older – boomers and above.  Mostly African American or Jewish.  I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel.  And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people.  Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.

Martha and the Vandellas.  Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.  Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”

It is the music of my childhood.  The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.

The couple behind me is singing.  They know every word.  During the performance, they respond to the actors.  More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either.  I like it.  I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.

Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.

This is what I learn:

Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.”  (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club.  Artist Date 47.)

The raid itself was not unusual.  Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.

The aftermath.  Detroit Free Press photograph.  Public Domain.
The aftermath. Detroit Free Press photograph. Public Domain.

But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly.  And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city.  To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit.  President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.

Five days later, 43 people were dead.  More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested.  Half of those arrested had no criminal record.  Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.

Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.

But I don’t see any of it.

Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe.  Who want something better for themselves.  Not unlike my own family.  In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.

Artist Date 45: The (Sometimes) Kindness of Strangers

This woman is wearing a knit hat, striped in colors of the Rastafarian flag.  It was a gift from a woman in Australia, while she was in Australia.  A woman who fed this woman lunch and beers but accepted no payment.  Her listening to the stories she was regaled with was payment enough.

kindness of strangersPlus, she would need it while camping in the outback.

She flew to Australia following the demise of a relationship.  Seems it is what she does.  Camping in the Outback.  Hiking in Wales.  Meditating on a mountain outside of Tokyo.

She is standing on a small stage in Rogers Park talking about it.  Coming clean, as it were.

Artist Date 45.

My friend Clover will also be reading and performing a piece .  It is about her mother.  About art school and being a performer.  About helping a man across the street who has fallen and everyone around him just keeps moving as if this hasn’t happened and the universe calls upon her to play the part of his angel.

There is a third.  Eric.  Who will talk about his need to go to a place where his father had been.  The father he didn’t know.  And then he did.  But who he never really knew.  And is now dead.

But right now I’m watching Jennifer.  I know her name because I looked it up in the program, which is black and white.  Folded but not stapled.  And reads, “The Kindness of Strangers: A Festival of Storytelling.”

And then, “A 3-week rotating mix of more than 30 storytellers weaving tales of connecting, or not, with strangers.”  The words encircled by drawings, like a globe – buildings, a boat and a lighthouse, water.

I want to be this woman with a knit hat and a beer-stained hiking map, marked up by pub patrons who laugh each time she says the word “garbage.”  This woman who takes off on serious adventures – by herself – when love goes south.  When the re-bound from the break up proves not to be the antidote to her pain.  Who is standing on this tiny stage telling her story.

I want to be that brave.  To travel alone.  Even though I’ve done it – albeit briefly — and my experience is that solo travel is most satisfying when it is connected to purpose.  And people.  Like my volunteer trips to Rwanda and the South of France.

I want a rebound.  Even though it has been suggested I don’t date.  Even though I have probably been divorced too long for anything to be called a rebound.  And my short-lived dalliances, both emotional and physical, have been painful to the extreme.

Even though my experience of being alone this past year has brought me closer to myself.  My craft.  My writing.  The very thing that might put me on stage.

Clover.  Very likely telling a story.  Just not on stage.
Clover. Very likely telling a story. Just not on stage.

I am comparing my insides to someones outsides once again.  Devaluing my own experience when confronted with someone seemingly doing what I think I’d like to do.  What I think I should do.

I well up listening to her.  While the details are different, I recognize the story as my own.

I see pieces of my story in Eric’s too.  Reconnecting with a parent who was physically absent for so many years.  His through desertion.  Mine through adoption.  Losing them again.  And what is left.  For him, a ring.  For me, a pair of opera glasses and a too-big mink coat, her name embroidered on the inside, hanging in my closet.

But I do not see myself in Clover’s story.

I’m not even looking, let alone comparing.  It is not that I am not interested.  I am.  I am teary, ass-glued-to-the-seat, riveted.

Maybe it is because I know her story.  Her stories.  She has trusted me with them over the years.

Her mother selling her art work, without her consent, as payment to her therapist.  Lying down in the street in downtown Chicago when the light is turned red.  A classroom performance piece.  The ants that crossed in front of her mattress, on the floor, in the basement of her mother’s friend’s house, in the toniest part of upstate New York.

And I have trusted her with mine.  They are less the same.  But our feelings, and our responses, match perfectly.  This is where we found our “me too’s.”

Like I am just now doing with Jennifer.  With Eric.  Connecting with strangers – who may or may not become more than that.  (Turns out, I have danced with Eric’s girlfriend on and off for years.  I’m pretty sure I’ll see both of them again.)  The place of beginning.

A Birthday Story: Celebrating What Is

It is four something in the morning.  I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.

I have always loved birthdays.

My birthday didn't begin with laughter...it ended with it.
My birthday didn’t begin with laughter…it ended with it.

I’m a big celebrator in general.  Ask any of my Weight Watchers members.  I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes.  Those subtle little miracles.

“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.

Well, 12-Step meetings.  But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.

Birthdays are like that.  It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day.  Mostly.

This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y.  A little less celebratory.

I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days.  Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.

We found one another in October of my 40th year.

Ours was not always an easy relationship.  Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship.  Timing.  Expectations.  Boundaries.  Those were our lessons.  And we were one another’s teachers.

She sent me flowers when I turned 40.  A card the following year.  And then phone calls the next two.  She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally.  This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call.  I felt sad.

Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur.  Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t.  I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why.  It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.

So there was that.

And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.

My ex was a great gift giver.

Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower.  A gift would come later.  Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier.  Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.

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Kristin. Who reminds me of the love in my life when I cannot see it.

He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him.  I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty.  She had lost hers.  Found it.  And gave the original to me.

I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years.  Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.

I didn’t like the watch he bought me.  I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time.  He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there.  The truth about our relationship.  It was over.  We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.

He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway.  I couldn’t do it.  I kept the watch.  I am still wearing it.

When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card.  Of a body in my bed.  Specifically, my ex’s.  I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it.  To him, for so long.

I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer.   “modeh ani lefanecha.  Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.”  I asked for several obsessions to be removed.  And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone.  The messages had already begun to pour in.  Old neighbors.  Acquaintances from grade school.  Family – by origin and by choice.  From Africa.  And from just down the street.

I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work.  Weight Watchers.  It felt life affirming.  As did dance class.  I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop.  I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist.  It fits as if it were made for me.

I talked to a few friends on the phone.  Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.

I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday.  Or at least try to.  Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated.  I was unclear why.  But today was delightfully ordinary.

Indian sweets.
Indian sweets.

It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue.  The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen.  Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray.  Where you eat with plastic utensils.

Where I feel conspicuously white.

There were eight of us.  Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages.  And then watched my friendship with him dissolve.  I hadn’t invited him.  But there he was.  I was delighted.

“Of course he’s here,” Kristin said.  “He loves you.”

I decided to believe her.  And to believe in all the love around the table.  JB’s.  Tom’s.  Matt’s.

Rebecca’s.  Brian’s.  Kristin’s.

And to focus on it.  To focus on who was there, instead of who wasn’t.  The calls, texts, cards and Facebook greetings I did receive.  Instead of those I didn’t.  (Well, mostly.)

We took pictures and ate fried bits of goodness – both sweet and savory.  Drank lassis and tea with evaporated milk.

I came home and ate the last of my sweets.  I felt a little overly-sugared.  Overly stimulated.

And I fell into bed.  Alone.  Sated.  Full.